The next of NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) is at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in preparation for a January launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. The TDRS-K satellite arrived via a United States Air Force C-17 from the Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems assembly facility in El Segundo, Calif.
NASA has used the TDRS family of satellites to provide communications for the space agency in a variety of both national and international missions. NASA uses the TDRS fleet to provide the agency with in-flight communications with spacecraft operating in low-Earth orbit. These spacecraft provide tracking, telemetry, command, and high bandwidth data return services to a wide-range of spacecraft.
“This launch will provide even greater capabilities to a network that has become key to enabling many of NASA’s scientific discoveries,” said Jeffrey Gramling, project manager for TDRS at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
It has been some time since the last TDRS satellite was sent aloft.
The TDRS-J satellite was launched atop an Atlas IIA rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 36A in Florida in December of 2002.
TDRS-K is the first in a planned group of three next-generation satellites meant to guarantee the continuity of service and expand the lifetime of the TDRS fleet. This will be further strengthened by the other two TDRS satellites, L and M, scheduled for launches in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
According to a NASA press release, these new TDRS satellites will employ next generation solar panels and will return signal processing for the S-band multiple access service to the ground—the same as the first-generation TDRS spacecraft. These satellites are promoted as having the ability of providing services to more customers in a variety of communications requirements.
The TDRS family of satellites harkens back to the shuttle program, providing communications to various locations in geostationary orbit in support of NASA’s human space exploration efforts. To date, nine TDRS satellites have been launched. Seven of those are still in service, even though four of the spacecraft are operating past their specified design lives.
The TDRS satellite also has a place in one of the greatest tragedies in human spaceflight history. The second TDRS satellite was launched on STS-51L, the final flight of space shuttle Challenger in 1986. It was lost along with the crew of seven on that day.